‘There’s families that will be abandoned’
TOKYO — Breakdowns in a new visa application process have some servicemembers in Japan fearing they will be forced to move stateside and leave their foreign spouses and children behind.
Instead of keeping their families together during routine military transfers stateside, servicemembers say they are facing the emotional and financial frustrations of moving alone while their wives, who are Japanese citizens, wait months to see whether they can settle in America.
In the past, an answer to an immigrant visa application averaged six months to a year, troops and military officials say. A sudden change in processing in January now means the process will take longer, government spokespeople said last week.
Even more aggravating, troops say, is that the process has become so convoluted that they can’t track down active cases for applications submitted months ago.
“There’s families that will be abandoned over here,” said one sailor at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, just outside of Tokyo. “I’m not sure if anybody realizes that.”
Officials from the departments of State and Homeland Security, the two agencies involved in the situation, say they know of the concerns and are working to speed up the process.
But that appears easier said than done. Last week, spokespeople from both agencies gave contradictory advice about where servicemembers should turn for help.
An embassy official in Tokyo referred servicemembers in Japan to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in California. A spokeswoman for Homeland Security, which oversees immigration services, stressed those same people should call a Seoul office for assistance.
Even the immigration services in late January said that applications from Japan should be sent to California, not Seoul.
“The lack of information, that’s the biggest thing,” a Yokosuka Naval Base sailor said last week. “They had no plan to make this transition. It looks like they really weren’t ready.”
Caught off-guardThe transition involves applications for I-130 visas, the proper stamp that allows family members with foreign citizenship to immigrate to the United States. Last year, federal law switched the application clearinghouse from the Department of State to the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen criminal background checks.
Although that handover officially started in July, embassies around the world kept collecting the applications until a few weeks ago. In the fourth week of January, embassies closed their application windows and forwarded all new and existing inquiries to immigration services, spokespeople from both agencies have said.
However, this overnight switch has caught nearly everyone in the process off-guard, according to servicemembers and government officials interviewed last week.
Troops who call the embassy in Tokyo for help say they are told to call immigration services. There, automated phone lines ask for an immigration case number, which the people calling don’t have. Instructions about I-130 visas at immigration services’ Web site direct overseas applicants to work with local embassies.
This bureaucratic finger-pointing has left the Yokosuka sailor, Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Vaughn, wondering what will happen in October, when he follows his orders to go to military school in Virginia Beach. Vaughn, 27, of Oklahoma City, plans to marry his Japanese girlfriend of four years, Tomomi Mori, in a civil ceremony in the next few days.
Vaughn says he was told to begin the visa application process six months before moving. He learned on a recent trip to the legal office at Yokosuka that the wait is likely going to be 12 to 18 months. “That’s going to be way past my rotation date,” he said during a phone interview last week, adding that he has four friends in his unit in the same situation.
Trying to work it outA Homeland Security spokeswoman, Chris Rhatigan, said immigration services are working hard both to satisfy customers and to follow last summer’s Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The law deals with monitoring and notification rules for sex offenders. It also limits who can sponsor an immigrant to the United States.
“We’re certainly sympathetic to these cases,” she said in a phone call from Washington on Friday, after hearing some of the sailors’ stories. “Our goal is to make it as seamless as possible, to make it how it was before while following the requirements of the law.”
Navy legal offices in Japan are trying to help as well, though they, too, don’t have all the answers so far.
As of Friday, the Navy legal offices were following the embassy’s direction and advising applicants to turn to the California immigration services office, according to Cmdr. David Waterman, spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Japan. “We’re just providing the information that we’re given,” he said, when hearing about the confusion.
But Waterman added that the legal offices have created a new checklist to comply with the new process, and they update servicemembers with phone calls when new pieces of information trickle out. The offices will also help sailors and their families fill out the paperwork, though the legal office cannot submit the application, he said.
Yet even servicemembers who applied before the system changed are finding hurdles.
The sailor at NAF Atsugi started his application process last September. He and his wife, who is Japanese, have been married six years and have a 5-year-old son. He has orders to move in June to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island near Seattle.
Now, he cannot track down his wife’s application in the system, he said Thursday.
Instead, all he has is a growing phone bill, a State Department case number that the immigration offices do not recognize, and a receipt for the $190 he paid to process the application, he said. He also has friends in his unit in the same situation.
“Nobody can tell you what your status is,” said the sailor, who asked for his name to be withheld because he fears his criticism of the system could slow the application review further. “All they would tell me is ‘We’re sorry.’”
He even called his Navy detailer — the person responsible for assigning sailors their new duty stations — and asked for a possible postponement. “My detailer, he said it’s not the Navy’s problem,” the Atsugi sailor said. “He said, ‘She’s a foreigner. We didn’t force you to marry a foreigner.’
“That really pissed me off,” said the Atsugi sailor, who has 18 years with the Navy. “What happened to ‘Families First?’” he added, evoking the military’s pledge to take care of both servicemembers and their families.
Col. Anne Morris, the spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Japan, said Friday that servicemembers should report all concerns or frustrations to their unit’s senior noncommissioned officers and commanders. “They need to let their chain of command know as soon as they are having problems,” she said Friday, adding that the military embraces families of mixed cultures. “I think our force is enriched by foreign-born spouses,” she said.
The embassy, too, is trying to work toward a solution. An embassy official in Tokyo said through an e-mail that officials are working toward the possibility of restoring the application process to State Department offices in Tokyo and Naha.
And there’s another possibility, according to Homeland Security.
Foreigners married to U.S. citizens can apply for a K-3 visa, a temporary permit that allows a person with a pending immigrant visa to enter the United States. A K-4 visa will offer similar entry for a child under 21, Rhatigan wrote in an e-mail. She also said that immigration services can expedite applications for the families of servicemembers who are deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. But that special service does not apply to routine military moves, she added.
Vaughn said his chain of command told him it was a State Department issue. For now, he’s hoping to marry in the next few days and keep trying to work on the easiest way to take his soon-to-be wife to the States. He also wrote his congressman looking for help. “This is going to affect a lot of people,” he said. “In the next couple of months, it’ll be a much larger problem.”